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Animal abuse documentary scared to bare its fangs

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As a call to action for animal rights activists, the doc The Ghosts in Our Machine is well-meaning but polemically challenged.

It takes on the issue, literally, through the lens of photographer-activist Jo-Anne McArthur, a woman who makes her living sneaking into fur farms or testing facilities to take shots of distressed animals suffering under the yoke of human oppression.

Early in the film, at a meeting with editors looking for print venues for McArthur's work, there is much discussion about just how distressing the photographs could get, given the sensitivities of the public. One man suggests the photos must be "PG" if they have any chance of seeing print.

Director Liz Marshall seems to have taken that advice to heart -- note the film's classification -- at the expense of making any serious impact.

Thus we see McArthur surreptitiously visiting a fox farm in Europe where the animals are cruelly caged by the hundreds. She takes her photos. Under her breath, she apologizes to one of the foxes for its momentary inconvenience.

In a remarkable contrast to that scenario, McArthur also visits a rescue farm where animals of all types have been awarded an idyllic free-range life after being rescued from pathetic circumstances on industrialized farms.

The movie's focus wanders over several manifestations of animal abuse encompassing food, fashion, research and entertainment. In this latter category, seaside aquariums are singled out for drafting intelligent animals such as dolphins to act as props and stooges for our enjoyment.

If you find that spectacle to be awful, as I do, you may experience some anger. If you don't, you'll probably think of it as an innocuous SeaWorld interlude. This is the kind of movie that requires that you bring your disapproval with you, instead of spontaneously fomenting it.

The film had many options when it came to engaging our outrage, including an elaboration of the frequently heard assertion animals are sentient beings deserving the same respect accorded to humans. A more intimate look at McArthur herself might have yielded a deeper consideration of her cause, but she remains by the end of the film as distant and elusive a character as when we first met her.

Instead of rousing the rabble, The Ghosts in Our Machine stays as ephemeral and cerebral as its title.

Other voices:

Her pictures -- many obtained by guerilla-tactic means -- are not easy to look at, and in Liz Marshall's largely moving documentary we come to understand that's the point: Once we begin to empathize with these animals, we can't ignore them quite so easily.

-- Geoff Pevere, Globe and Mail


The film is unlikely to bring any fence sitters around to McArthur's point of view. In fact, the scenes of her hugging a cow could even have the opposite effect.

-- Chris Knight, National Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2013 D5

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